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Petro warms up for state performance

Joshua Irvine

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Full disclosure: the author is a member of the varsity swim team.


“If I get this I’m gonna win state!”

The basketball arcs over the pool deck and landed with a flat splash just short of the white nylon net suspended over the shallow end of Prospect High School’s pool.

“Aww.” junior Michael Petro traipses across the deck, clad in a faded team Speedo, and reaches one arm out into the water for the ball. He gets it the second time, and the moment is recorded on fellow junior RJ Quinn’s Snap Story while senior and team co-captain Nick Pauwels looks on.

Its about half past 11 on Friday, and Petro, Pauwels’ fellow captain and so-called “Golden Boy” of swimming is preparing himself for the preliminary round of the Illinois High School Association’ swimming and diving state meet,  at New Trier High School.

Petro swims a brief warm-up, gets out of the water, and strides into the locker room with his fellow swimmers; coach Dick Mortenson, known as “Mort” to his swimmers, locks the locker room door behind him and goes out through the coaches office accompanied by frosh/soph coach Jeffrey Baker.

In the locker room, Petro changes into sweatpants and a t-shirt; any part of his body that can’t be covered by a swimsuit is shaven smooth, save for his head, which has started to grow a short layer of bristles in the week after he shaved it for sectionals with his other team members. Pauwels sports a similar look.

Petro and his entourage board a white District 214 bus dubbed “the ice cream van” and start the 45 minute southern trek to New Trier with Mort at the wheel; behind him, Petro and his compatriots crack jokes, talk future Future concerts, and rag on Baker for his robotic air drumstick impression.

For Petro, this is nothing new; this is the junior’s second time at state, the first time being his freshman year (the swimmer did not attend IHSA State last year after leaving the team several weeks into season). Both times Petro was alone; he’s been the only state qualifier in boys swimming for three years.

The van stops at a Panera Bread so the swimmers and coaches can eat. Petro and his swimmers sit in a booth and continue to trade jabs; Petro’s food arrives last, but he scarfs it down in what would be considered an alarming rate for anyone else. The crowd return to the ice cream van, riffing on a not-present team member, and continue south.

When the van arrives at New Trier around 1, Petro and the coaches separate from his supporters and proceed through the pool’s changing rooms and onto the deck (diving, which takes place before swimming, keeps the pool occupied until warm-ups at 2 PM).

Pauwels and Quinn enter one of New Trier’s ancient and cavernous gymnasiums to join with a small patch of orange that sit among thousands of supporters in the lofty bleachers; Petro’s parents and his junior girlfriend, who’ve been in the gymnasium since 9 that morning. The . Petros are more than accustomed to days like this; Michael’s the youngest of six in a family where being called swim fanatics is putting it lightly.

Over the next three few hours, the group sit relatively quietly, waiting for the IHSA officials spread throughout the gym to allow the supporters into the pool seating. At long last, an official announces over loudspeaker, and the crowd ekes its way out of the gym as dictated by blue wristbands handed out at the door.  Petro parents are in the low 300s; Pauwels and Quinn have to wait until the mid 600s to exit.

The pool seating is perched over the grey and white tile pool, a miniature Colosseum-meets-natatorium; below, swimmers and coaches from dozens of Illinois high schools crowd the limited deck space and pool.

The clamor is deafening, the air is hot and, for those near Mort and Baker, holds the slight scent of essential oils. Its a remnant of the secretive Motion Lotion, a mixture of unknown compounds reserved for application by masseuse during only the highest tier swim meets; this is Petro’s second time on the masseuse’s table in a week, after sectionals.

Warm-ups are brief, and after the usual pleasantries and a live performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” by a New Trier vocalist, the meet begins. Petro is in the third event, the 200 meter individual medley: by all accounts his specialty.

He’s in the fastest lane in his heat, but its the second to last heat – and taking the lane in the final heat is Glenbrook South senior Sam Iida, who beat out Petro at sectionals by 11 tenths of a second.

Petro sits behind the diving blocks while the early heats slog by, a bright orange Hersey beanie on his head. As he nears his event, he strips off the beanie and the rest of his clothes and stretches.

The race itself is a bit of an anticlimax; Petro dominates the heat, placing first a whole body length ahead of his nearest competitor. But he gains two seconds from his best, and when Iida enters the water in the same lane, he posts a three second lead on Petro, claiming the pool record in the process.

There’s also a second swimmer in that heat who ekes out a time just under Petro’s. That puts Petro as third seed at Saturday’s finals, with Iida to be directly on his left.

In the time before Petro’s next event – the 100 meter butterfly – he chats with Sam Wilcher, Saint Viator High School’s new swim coach and an old friend and fellow swimmer, as well as Michael Balzcerak  a Viator swimmer with whom Petro shares a similar relationship. He also pauses to share a brief diagnosis of his physical state before retreating to the locker rooms – “I’m tired.”

Petro returns to the blocks for the 100 fly and marginally increases on his sectional time. To his left is a mirror image of Petro two years back, a freshman at his first state meet. He doesn’t beat Petro, but three others do, putting Petro at fourth seed for Saturday.

Petro and the coaches evacuate the pool deck shortly after the fly, rejoining with Pauwels and Quinn at the ice cream van. Petro’s exhausted; the group returns for Prospect so the swimmer can warm down; Petro bids his coaches goodnight. He’ll need the rest.

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Petro warms up for state performance